In an open letter to the provincial government, the President of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association (AFCA), Chief Randy Schroeder has expressed concern over a lack of cohesive wildfire preparedness strategy for the province.
According to Chief Schroeder, combatting last year’s wildfire season in Alberta brought forth considerable challenges, highlighting the critical need for a comprehensive and proactive approach to wildfire management.
"The AFCA has met with key Ministries presenting specific asks including additional resources, increased training capacity, equipment, and aerials and requesting the establishment of a Provincial Fire Services Advisory Committee to assist in developing a dedicated provincial strategy to better manage and mitigate the risks associated with wildfire seasons."
According to provincial data, in 2023, a total of 1,094 wildfires burned 2,214,957 hectares.
"Compared with the five-year average (2018-2022) of 1,110 wildfires burning more than 190,000 hectares, [last year's] season was 10 times more severe in terms of area burnt."
Chief Schroeder went on to state that there is, 'a growing concern among Fire Chiefs across the province of the lack of communication of what the plan is, allocation of funds compared to previous years and plan for the recruitment and deployment of firefighters and equipment.'
"The AFCA emphasized the urgency of addressing these concerns before the onset of the wildfire season. It is imperative to have a clear, well-resourced, and collaborative strategy that involves all levels of government to effectively manage and mitigate the risks of wildfires in Alberta."
City Fire Chief, Mike Pirie, who is also part of the AFCA echoed Chief Schroeder's concern enumerated in the open letter.
"When we engage with government, everybody agrees that wildfires and the wildland approach around the wildland-urban interface are important, and everybody is doing their work, but it's very siloed," Chief Pirie explained. "You don't see government ministries working together across their boundaries or their portfolio[s]. [Alberta] Parks needs to be working with Municipal Affairs, and Economic Corridors; we need all of these ministries together."
He added that that is part of what the AFCA is asking, for ministries to work more cohesively, while also establishing a Provincial Fire Services Advisory Committee.
"The big issue is [if a] fire starts in a forest protection area, as soon as it moves into municipality, the municipality is on the hook for everything: finding firefighters getting air resources, finding a way to coordinate with provincial and federal resources, funding the response. We have to do better than that.'
While the City of Airdrie is not at significant risk of being impacted by wildfires, grassfires remain a significant concern.
"When I talk wildfire, it's that whole continuum from the forest [areas] down to the grasslands and agricultural [areas]; [and] that has a very big impact on the City of Airdrie and surrounding communities. That's where it hits us and affects us."
And while wildfires may not directly pose a risk to Airdrie, this doesn't mean that resources from the Airdrie Fire Department won't be affected.
"As far as wildfires go, I see it's the same as last year where we have members of our departments that participated in incident management teams; I see that happening again, it might be with more frequency," Chief Pirie added. "I see us continuing that capacity to support people in managing their incidents. I can see requests for peer support, going out for mental health resources."
Because the weather will play a major role in how the wildfire fire season progresses, Chief Pirie noted that there isn't much that can be done in terms of mitigation before a potential grassfire.
"We enforce safety codes [and] we deliver service typically on a response basis. That actual proactive prevention type component is very resource-intensive and it's just not practical for us today. Now, that doesn't mean there should be none."
He pointed to the FireSmart program, which is a, 'a framework designed to mitigate the risk of and educate residents and stakeholders regarding the potential for large uncontrollable wildfires near communities and critical infrastructure.'
"This program has messages that are important for both residents and business owners. And if I can emphasize, this is not just for acreages, farms and people with lots of trees. These principles apply in an urban environment; in a home," he said. "Looking at where you store your logs for your fireplace or the types of materials that are around a building or how it's built. You can take some of those good FireSmart principles and apply them in an urban environment."
Currently, 13 wildfires are burning across the province. Wildfire season begins in March, although in early December last year, two months after the province's wildfire season finished, a massive grass fire broke out Northwest of Airdrie, which spread rapidly across approximately 350 acres.
While the cause of the wildfire was later identified as a downed powerline, Rocky View County noted that the dry weather and extreme wind gusts had accelerated the fire. Though no injuries occurred as a result of the fire, residents were forced to evacuate for a short period.
Concerns over a historical wildfire season are being exacerbated by predictions that both Alberta and British Columbia will face drought in the coming months.
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